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Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics

The Riddle of the sp(h)ij-: The Greek Sphinx and her Indic and Indo-European


Version 1.0

December 2005

Joshua T. Katz

Princeton University

Abstract: The name of the Sphinx, the Greek female monster who had fun killing passers-by who could
not answer her riddle, has long been an etymological conundrum. On the basis of literary, linguistic, and
anthropological evidence from, above all, Greece and India, this paper comes to a novel understanding of
the Sphinx’ origin, concluding that her oldest moniker, (S)F∞k-, is related to a newly uncovered Greek
noun f€ki˚ ‘buttocks’ and to a Sanskrit word for the same body part, sphij-, a hitherto misunderstood
form of which appears, in turn, in a riddle in the oldest Indic text, the Rigveda. This derivation situates
the Greek creature squarely in the cross-culturally typically aggressive and sexually charged genre of

© Joshua T. Katz.


The following paper, which was completed in August 2004 (the brief addendum on p. 22 was
added in July 2005), is scheduled to appear in a volume of the series “Collection Linguistique de
la Société de Linguistique de Paris” titled Langue poétique indo-européenne and edited by G.-J.
Pinault & D. Petit. To judge from the proofs, the final published version will look different in a
number of (fortunately minor) ways from what follows. I regret that I have not in this version
been able to add dots under a number of Greek characters in quotations from papyri on pp. 3, 18,
and 19; they will, however, appear in the actual publication.


This paper is about four words—two in Sanskrit, two in Greek—and the connections
among them, which are not immediately obvious but which, once seen and if believed, are
perhaps not so easily forgotten.* One of the Sanskrit forms, sphij-, is well enough known,
whereas the other is a hapax; as for the Greek, one of them is infamous, the other until recently
utterly obscure. In my contribution to the Festschrift for Jens Elmegård Rasmussen (Katz 2004),
I argue that there is a formal relationship between sphij- and the obviously connected sphig∞-,
both standard (Vedic+) words for ‘hip’ or ‘buttock,’ and a phonologically vaguely similar and
semantically effectively identical noun in Greek, f€ki˚, translated as ‘buttocks’ or ‘anus’
whenever it is actually discussed, which is not often. My conclusion is that the Sanskrit and
Greek forms go back to something like *(s)phiK-(i-) in Proto-Indo-European; a very similar
preform may also underlie such Germanic words as Mod. Germ. Speck ‘ham, bacon,’ whether or
not these are all ultimately derivatives of the Proto-Indo-European root usually set up as
*spheh1(„[?])- (cf., e.g., Skt. √sph#- ‘get fat’). The morphophonological details are not trivial, and
the reader of the present paper should be familiar with my earlier discussion since the historical
equivalence of sphij-/sphig∞- and f€ki˚ is taken for granted in what follows. I hope to
demonstrate that acceptance of this etymology leads to unexpected and dramatic consequences,
ones that go well beyond linguistics to the heart of culture: Indo-European poetics.
Since the Greek word f€ki˚ and allied forms are so little known—they appear in the LSJ
only in the Revised Supplement of 1996—it is worthwhile to begin with a quick summary of the
evidence; further information is to be found in Katz 2004. The noun appears, undefined but
apparently notable for its accentuation, in a treatise of the 2nd-century A.D. grammarian
Herodian: tÚ d¢ f€ki˚ barÊnetai (1.88.35) ‘The word f€ki˚ is not accented on the final
syllable.’ Unfortunately, August Lentz, the editor of the standard edition of Herodian (Gramm.
Gr. III), emended f€ki˚ out of existence, changing it to K€ki˚, supposedly (as he explains in the
apparatus) the name of one of Alcaeus’ brothers. Also in a mainstream published text is the verb
fiki« in the late 10th-century A.D. Suda (f293 Adler); this, too, is undefined, though in view of
what we now know about the base noun (see immediately below), there can be no doubt but that

Longer and shorter versions of this paper have been presented at the 212th Meeting of the American
Oriental Society (Houston, Texas, March 2002), the 21st East Coast Indo-European Conference (University of
Pennsylvania, June 2002), the Institute for Advanced Study (School of Historical Studies, November 2002), the
Louisiana State University (Interdepartmental Program in Linguistics, November 2003), and Princeton University
(Program in the Ancient World, December 2003), as well as at the “Colloque de travail de la Société des Etudes
Indo-Européennes: langue poétique indo-européenne” in Paris in October 2003. Colleagues and friends on each of
these occasions responded with many helpful remarks, and it is a pleasure to acknowledge with thanks support of a
different but likewise essential kind from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Institute for Advanced

it means ‘wish to be screwed anally’ (see Bain 1983). The other three examples are all nouns in
recently discovered papyri. The word received its proper recognition with the 1974 publication
by P. J. Parsons of a vulgar 1st-century A.D. “letter” from Oxyrhynchus (POxy. 3070, “Indecent
Proposal”) with the phrase cvlØ ka‹ f€ki˚ ‘erect cock and f€ki˚’ written around a crude
diagram of the same (see Parsons 1974: 163f. + Plate VIII). The clear existence of a word f€ki˚
with the meaning ‘buttocks’ or ‘anus’ then allowed scholars (in the first place Bain 1978) to
make better sense of a previously published and significantly older (mid- to late 3rd-century
B.C.) papyrus from Hibeh that lets loose a series of insults against a ruddy man, one of which
seems to state, oÈ prÒs]vpon ¶xe[i]˚, [é]llå paid€ou f€kio[n (PHeid. 190 fr. 1.75) ‘That’s
not a face you’ve got; it’s a baby’s bottom!’1; it is possible that the last word should be read not
as an (originally diminutive?) f€kio[n, but rather as the accusative of the base form, f€kin (or,
possibly, f€kid[a). Last, another papyrus from Oxyrhynchus published by Parsons only in
1999—this time a 1st-century A.D. (?) rendering of five epigrams of Nicarchus—seems to attest
the very word f€kion (POxy. 4502.34) that we may have in PHeid. 190; I shall return at the end
of the paper to the very interesting poem in question, noting for now only that the line with
f€kion appears also to contain a form of fallÒ˚ ‘phallus.’
In a letter of 10 March 2004, Professor David Bain, the most prolific expert on f€ki˚ (see
Bain 1978, 1983, and 1999b: 132, as well as 1991: 69), kindly brought to my attention yet
another instance of the word that has been lurking all but unnoticed in a Greek textual corner,
this time in the second half of a compound in the Etymologicum magnum. In the course of
describing the bird known as kigkl€˚, the most usual form of whose name is k€gklo˚, the
lexicon states as follows: kigkl‹˚, ˆrni˚ legoµ°nh, puknå tØn oÈrån kinoËsa, ∂n §n tª
sunhye€& ¶nioi seisopug€da kaloËsin: e‡rhtai diå tÚ sunex«˚ tå oÈra›a pterå §n t“
aÈt“ kine›n: µ parå tÚ se€ein tØn pugØn, ˜ §sti tØn oÈrãn: seisof€kh˚ par’ ≤µ›n
Ùnoµãzetai (513.11-15 Gaisford) ‘The bird called kigkl€˚, which rapidly moves its tail, some
people customarily call seisopug€˚: it is spoken of thus on account of its continuously moving
its tail feathers in the same way or because it shakes its rump, i.e., its tail; we give it the name
seisof€kh˚.’ The bird in question is referred to in English as a wagtail (note also obsolete
wagstart; cf. MLG wagestert), an archaic exocentric compound just like regional Fr. hoche-
queue and hausse-queue (the usual word is bergeronnette) and very similar to what we find in
Lat. m^tacilla (if really transformed from moue^ ‘move’ + c&lus ‘anus,’ though this is probably
only a folk etymology; cf. Var. Ling. 5.76 motacilla, … quod semper mouet caudam ‘motacilla,
… because it always moves its tail’) and, in Greek, both seisopug€˚ (i.e., se€v ‘shake’ + pugÆ
‘buttocks’) and what can now be understood as its clear semantic equivalent, the hapax
seisof€kh˚.2 It is to be hoped that Bain will give this interesting word a full treatment

Are we to think of a baby’s spanked behind (thus, very tentatively, Katz 2004: 281) or a case of diaper
rash? Alternatively, perhaps paid€on here means ‘slave-boy’ and the man’s face is being compared to a slave’s
sexually violated anus or whipped backside. Note that it is perfectly possible for a word like f€ki˚ or f€kion to
mean ‘buttocks’ in one context and ‘anus’ in another (or, for that matter, ‘hip’ and ‘buttock,’ as with Skt. sphij-
/sphig∞-): compare, e.g., Adams 1981: 232, 233, 235f., 239, 264, and passim and 1982b: 115f. (on shifts between
adjacent body parts, see also the end of fn. 51 below).
D. W. Thompson 1936: 140f. (k€gklo˚ and variants), 142 (k€llouro˚, literally “X-tail,” but the identity
of the first element is unclear; see Chantraine 1999: 531), and 257f. (seisopug€˚ and variants, including se€ouro˚)

Let us move away from posterior analytics now and toward poetics. The Sanskrit forms
sphij- (first in AVP 16.148.1b) and the somewhat earlier-attested but derivationally probably
secondary sphig∞- (already in the Rigveda: 3.32.11d and 8.4.8a) are semantically straightforward,
having basically the same referent as Gk. f€ki˚, but there is one other word in Indic that is
usually connected to these with a cautious question mark: the hapax upaspíjam, found in RV
10.88.18c and unclear as regards both meaning and morphology (for a preliminary assessment,
see Katz 2004: 283 n. 21). Certainly it looks like a compound, and on the plausible assumption
that the second element is a root noun spíj-*, with the accusative ending -am, a link with sphij-
‘buttock’ may seem attractive. Leaving semantics aside for the moment, the obvious difficulty is
that ‘buttock’ has a -ph- whereas the (second) labial in upaspíjam is unaspirated; this is the sole
reason for the parentheses around the aitch in my title. It is hard to know how great a problem
this actually is, though, given that upaspíjam is attested only once in the entire corpus of Sanskrit
literature, and in (as we shall soon see) a striking and very likely slangy context.3 The
comparison of sphij- with f€ki˚ means that the preform must involve aspiration (pace, e.g.,
Hiersche 1964: 164), but I admit that I do not know of a non-ad hoc way to explain the
discrepancy between -ph- and the lone case of -p-: on the one hand, it is hardly attractive to
claim that upaspíj- has undergone some kind of low-level labial assimilation, from an original
*upasphíj- (there are no parallels, despite numerous attested compounds that begin upa-, many
with the common prepositional adverb úpa); on the other, pushing the matter back to Proto-Indo-
European and imagining that the presence or lack of aspiration might have something to do with
the (morphologically conditioned?) placement or non-placement of a laryngeal next to a
primordial unaspirated *p is even less enlightening (for one thing, it is difficult enough to
conceive of the status of sphij- at this stage, much less also upaspíjam).4 There is, then, no
satisfactory solution, but what remains is the question of whether we really need a solution in the
first instance. Put otherwise, it may be that the best way to determine whether upaspíjam does
indeed contain a slightly mangled form of our word sphij- is to see whether such an idea helps
clarify the word’s meaning.

provides ornithological and textual details, specifically noting the existence of our form “seisof€kh˚ (lect. dub.)” in
the Etymologicum magnum (257); see also Henderson 1991: 179 and also 210. There is some confusion between the
wagtail and the magical ‡ugj/‰ugj-bird, about whose erotic power so much has been written and which one source
describes as µ kina€dion µ fervnʵv˚ seisopug‹˚ kale›tai diå tÚ pantaxoË str°fein ka‹ lug€zein tØn
pugÆn (Sch. Theoc. 2.17 Wendel); see D. W. Thompson 1936: 124-28 and 142, as well as Vox 1980: 175, with n.
8. (Note that k€naido˚ ‘catamite,’ of which kina€dion is the diminutive, is etymologized in the Etymologicum
Gudianum as follows: e‡rhtai d¢ parå tÚ kine›syai tØn afid«: µ parå tÚ kine›n tå afido›a [322.15f. Sturz];
compare also Chantraine 1999: 532.) In this connection, it seems reasonable to think that Vox 1980 is right to build
on Troxler 1964: 160 and view the endocentric compound pugostÒlo˚, a hapax in Hesiod (Op. 373) that literally
means something like “arse-rigged,” as one of so many hidden animal names in the Works & Days, and specifically
as a quasi-kenning for either ‡ugj (thus Vox) or the wagtail (“quasi” because not a bird per se, but the “donna-
uccello” whose poking around in one’s granary Hesiod cautions is not so innocent); I note that the 2OED’s definition
3b. of wagtail (obsolete, “[c]ommon in the 17th c[entury]”) is “A contemptuous term for a profligate or inconstant
woman; hence, a harlot, courtesan.”
Mayrhofer 1988: 222 writes, “Für -spíj- gibt es keinen Anschluß außerhalb dieses Belegs […]; doch lehnt
Old[enberg 1912:] 295f. eine Verbindung mit sphij- ‘Hinterbacke’ vielleicht zu apodiktisch ab, da wir die
Motivation singulärer Slang-Ausdrücke nicht kennen” (Oldenberg’s claim, which most scholars today believe is too
hard-edged, is simply this: “Aenderung, die upaspíjam an sphíj anschließt, scheint ausgeschlossen. Wir kennen
jenes Wort nicht; es mag etwa ‘Vorwitz’ bedeuten” [295]).
For the latest—and decidedly skeptical—word on the idea that **p + H[2?] yields PIE *ph, see Elbourne

The precise sense of upaspíjam is a notorious problem, though scholars who have studied
the context in which it appears agree in general terms that it has to mean something like ‘trick
question’ or, to use Geldner’s standard translation into German, ‘verfängliche Frage’ (Geldner
1951: III.283). The hapax appears near the end of a 19-stanza hymn, RV 10.88 (to S&rya and
Agni Vai–v#nara), immediately after a series of very short cryptic questions about the number of
fires, suns, dawns, and waters—a certain, if much abbreviated, example of the riddling
catechistic genre known as brahmodya (brahmódya-), whose poetic and social mysteries
Vedicists are particularly fond of explicating.5 This mini-brahmodya runs for the hymn’s final
three stanzas (17-19), as follows (translations: Geldner 1951: III.282f. and Renou 1965: 24):

17 yátr# vádete ávara˛ pára– ca yajñanyò˛ kataró nau ví veda |

£ –ekur ít sadham£daª sákh#yo nák≠anta yajñ᪠ká id᪠ví vocat ||
18 káty agnáya˛ káti s¶ry#sa˛ káty u≠£sa˛ káty u svid £pa˛ |
nópaspíjaª va˛ pitaro vad#mi p‰ch£mi va˛ kavayo vidmáne kám ||
19 y#vanm#trám u≠áso ná prát%kaª suparºyò vásate m#tari–va˛ |
t£vad dadh#ty úpa yajñám #yán br#hmaºó hótur ávaro ni≠∞dan ||

17 Über den beide einen Wortstreit führen, hüben und drüben (sitzend): Welcher von
uns beiden Opferleitern weiß es genau? Die Genossen haben die gemeinsame
Trankfeier zustande gebracht, sie kamen zum Opfer. Wer wird Folgendes
18 “Wie viele Feuer gibt es, wie viele Sonnen, wie viele Morgenröten, wie viele sind
denn die Gewässer? Ich stelle euch keine verfängliche Frage, ihr Väter; ich frage
euch, ihr Seher, nur um es zu erfahren.”
19 Noch ehe die beflügelten (Flammen) sich mit dem Abglanz der Morgenröten
umkleiden, o M#tari–van, stellt bei dem Opfer erscheinend der Brahmane auf die
Probe, dem Hot‰ gegenüber Platz nehmend.


17 Là où deux (êtres) discutent, (l’un étant) de ce côté-ci, (l’autre) de l’autre bord,

(disant:) lequel de nous deux qui conduisons le sacrifice connaît exactement (la
clé)? / Les amis ont déployé-leurs-forces pour la symposion (des dieux), ils ont
atteint l’(objet ultime du) sacrifice. Qui (d’entre eux) peut expliquer ce (qu’on va
18 “Combien (y a-t-il) de feux, combien de soleils, combien d’aurores et combien, à
peu près, d’eaux?” / Je ne parle pas pour vous taquiner, ô pères, je vous
questionne, ô poètes, afin de savoir.
19 Dans la même mesure où les (flammes) ailées revêtent (l’autel), comme (elles
revêtent) la face de l’aurore, ô (Agni) M#tari–van, / dans la même (mesure) le
brâhmane met (en jeu le thème poétique) tout en approchant du sacrifice (et)
prenant place au-dessous de l’oblateur.

The most famous brahmodyic hymn is RV 1.164, which has 52 stanzas. For a generally clear and
persuasive account of brahmodya in general, see G. Thompson 1997 (25 specifically on RV 10.88) and the
references therein; the classic article is Renou 1949, and other important papers since then include Elizarenkova &
Toporov 1987 and Witzel 1987.

The poem certainly “steht über dem Durchschnitt” (Geldner 1951: III.280), but the translations
are almost as difficult as the Sanskrit. In brief, what is happening is that two rivals are engaged
in a dispute over the cosmogonic mysteries of Agni Vai–v#nara, with one confronting the other
with this set of simple-sounding but in fact devilishly difficult queries6 before stating that he
does not actually mean to be malicious: nópaspíjaª va˛ pitaro vad#mi / p‰ch£mi va˛ kavayo
vidmáne kám (18cd) ‘I don’t tell you this upaspíjam, o fathers; I ask you, o seers, so as to
In his recent general article on brahmodya, George Thompson discusses this “kleine
Disputierszene” (Geldner 1951: III.282), noting that already Louis Renou pointed out (in Renou
1949: 36) that the “concluding protestation” is strikingly reminiscent of a turn of phrase in the
V#jasaneyi Saªhit# (23.49 p‰ch£mi tv# citáye … ‘I ask you in order to find out …’)—part of the
classic Vedic brahmodyic sequence par excellence, VS 23.45-62—and compared it (see Renou
1965: 93) to the “phenomenon of ‘over-questioning’ (atipra–na) in the upani≠ads” (G.
Thompson 1997: 25).8 He continues as follows:

The key word here is upaspíj, a hapax legomenon without clear etymology. But the
context suggests strongly that the term must mean something like “hostile, aggressive,
treacherously deceptive” (cf. S#yaºa’s gloss, spardh#yuktaª vacanam [‘rivalry-yoked
word’]). By denying so adamantly that his questions are aggressive, the poet
inadvertently demonstrates, I think, that such interrogation sequences are typically
perceived to be exactly that: aggressive, hostile. The poet here claims that he genuinely
seeks to know, implying quite clearly both that he does not know and that, typically, he is
supposed to know. He wants, in spite of appearances and expectations, that his question
be interpreted as a direct question, a sincere solicitation of information which he does not
himself possess. We may choose to take him at his word, or not, but in either case it
should be clear why he feels the need to deny an aggressive intent: for a brahmodya
invites aggression.

Can an understanding of the etymology of upaspíjam help with its semantics? The most
recent and detailed discussion of the word’s possible morphological composition and meaning is
Scarlata 1999: 664f., who leaves the matter open, though he considers it possible

We learn in RV 8.58.2 that there is in fact but one fire, one sun, and one dawn (nothing is said about the
waters, though see Oldenberg 1907: 232, with n. 3). For the relationship between RV 10.88 and the first two stanzas
of this fragmentary three-stanza hymn, see Oldenberg 1888: 516f., with n. 1, and 1907: 232, as well as Renou 1949:
36, with n. 1, and Geldner 1951: II.378f.
I am working on the assumption that the questions and statement in stanza 18 are addressed by one of the
two sacrificers to the other, presumably (see 19) by the Brahmin to the “Reciter” (hótar-); unlike Geldner, I would
therefore begin the direct speech already with 17b. Alternatively, 18 would be uttered by a third party—perhaps the
poet himself—and directed at both sacrificers. (If I am reading rightly, Thompson 1997: 25 confuses the two
possibilities; it is not clear to me why Renou puts quotation marks around only 18ab.) In both cases, the plurals vas,
pitaras, and kavayas (18cd) are unexpected: the questions may be conventionally put to a general community of “the
Compare Geldner 1951: III.282: “Diese kleine Disputierszene gehört noch in den Zusammenhang des
Lieds und paßt zu dessen mehr spekulativem Charakter. Bei Gelegenheit des Opfers gaben sich, wie wir hier
erfahren, schon zu }V.zeit die Hauptpriester dergleichen Rätsel, die sog. brahmody#ni, auf; vgl. VS. 23, 45-62.”
Elizarenkova & Toporov 1987: 45-48 translate VS 23.45-62 in the course of their useful discussion of brahmodya;
on ‘overasking’ in the Upani≠ads, see most notably Witzel 1987 (with a crediting nod to A. Wezler on p. 364 n. 5).

(“möglicherweise”) that the word is to be segmented as upa-spíj-, that is, with the prepositional
adverb úpa ‘toward (+ acc.); near to, at (+ loc.)’ (cf., e.g., Gk. ÍpÒ ‘under’); as for ospíj-, if this
is somehow the same word as sphij- ‘buttock,’ “[d]as Konzept ist auch dann unklar (etwa ‘am
Arsch’?)” (664). He has other ideas as well, though, notably that the word might actually be

Analysiert man upas-píj-, so müsste das V[order]G[lied] zum Subst. upás-

‘Schoss’, zu einer Ableitung von VAP-(1,2) ‘streuen; scheren’ oder allenfalls zu einem
mit dem Adv. úpa gleichbedeutenden *upás ← *upár (cf. das Verhältnis von áva zu avár
und sekundärem avás und auch upári) gezogen werden.
Die ersten zwei Annahmen geben nichts her. Unter Annahme eines adverbialen
VG upas˚ könnte das daraus resultierende H[inter]G[lied] ˚píj- vielleicht auf eine
Wurzelvariante zu √PAYi-2 ‘schmähen, tadeln, beschimpfen’ zurückgeführt werden:
*√pe„-H ~ *√pe„-˚- und vielleicht eben *√pe„-©-. Die letzte Variante sieht Pokorny […]
in lat. piget ‘es verdriesst’, piger ‘verdrossen’.
upaspíjam wäre dann Akk.Sg. zu einem N[omen ]act[ionis] upaspíj- f., etwa
‘Verdruss’ oder — trotz [Mayrhofer 1988: 222]— Inf. oder Absolutiv ‘zu verdriessen, zu
befeinden; zum Verdriessen’: ‘Nicht spreche ich, euch zu verdriessen, {sondern} ich
frage, um es zu wissen’. Zweifel bleiben bestehen. (664f.)

In short, Scarlata is most taken with the idea that upaspíjam is a compound of an (unattested!)
by-form *upás, with more or less the same meaning as úpa, and some (likewise unattested!)
combining element *opíj-, which he would see as an extended form of the Proto-Indo-European
root found in Lat. piget ‘vexes’; in this case, the hapax would be the accusative of a noun that
means ‘annoyance’ or, perhaps (compare notably Wolff 1907: 76), an infinitive ‘to annoy.’
Maintaining that upaspíjam is a compound of two otherwise unattested forms has obvious
and significant drawbacks. I suggest a different interpretation: suppose that the second element
is indeed a variant of sphij- ‘buttock’ and that the first element is the attested word upás- that
Scarlata dismisses on the unexamined grounds that it “g[ibt] nichts her,” namely the s-stem noun
for ‘lap; womb,’ which is securely attested already in the Rigveda (loc. sg. upás-i in 5.43.7c and
10.27.13c). From a morphophonological point of view, any of the following three analyses of
the word (which I see as a root or a-stem noun in the accusative rather than a so-called
“accusative infinitive” in -am) would probably be possible: *upas-spíj- (with regular
simplification of *-ss-), upa-spíj- (with a bare form of the s-stem as the first element),9 or even
upas-píj- (with opíj- ≅ sp(h)ij-, minus an s-mobile).10 Rather more interesting, of course, is what
a compound that literally means “lap-buttock” does in fact signify. Surely this is a very special
sort of dvandva (see Wackernagel 1905: 149-73), one in which the bipartite nature of a single
entity becomes apparent only once one has recognized both its halves: simply put, upaspíjam is
an iconic riddle-word, referring to a trick or double-edged query while itself actually being in
form a two-sided puzzle. An aggressive riddle of this kind can be viewed and answered from

There are parallels in Indo-European for compounding forms of s-stems that do not have the -s- (see my
brief remark in Katz 2001: 228f.), though there is no such evidence in Sanskrit specifically for upás- (Stüber 2002:
27-30 and passim ignores the matter entirely; further investigation is clearly called for).
There can be no firm rejection of any argument based on s-mobile, especially not when the very
comparison sphij- ~ f€ki˚ requires it (see Katz 2004: 283); for a related Greek form in sf-, see below in the text.

two different angles, from both sides—a sort of Janus-question, only here what is at issue is not
the head, but the tail.11
Can anything else be said about upaspíjam on the basis of the derivation I propose? It is
generally agreed (see, e.g., G. Thompson 1997: 23-25) that the enigmatic Indic genre of
brahmodya has parallels in cognate traditions that, taken together, point to agonistic riddling as
part of Proto-Indo-European culture.12 If the genre is thus inherited, we may permit ourselves to
wonder whether there is any possibility of seeing in the two-sided compound upaspíjam, and
particularly in the second half of the word, osp(h)íj-, a remnant of the same form that underlies
the similar-sounding name of the two-sided Sphinx (Sf€gj), the most infamous riddler in the
ancient society most closely related to that of the Indo-Iranians. According to the standard
version of the most famous of all Greek stories, that of Oedipus, the Sphinx, who is usually
represented iconographically as having the head of a woman and the body of a crouching
lion(ess), terrorized the inhabitants of Thebes with the following numerological engima13:

Salvatore Scarlata points out to me that if the word is indeed a dvandva, we would expect the
accentuation *upaspijám, with the stressed formant -á- (see Wackernagel 1905: 160-64 and passim); this is not a
critical blow to my argument, however, since the word, which seems to have been tampered with anyway (witness
spíj- for expected *osphíj-) and was not understood even within the Sanskrit tradition, would almost certainly have
to have been interpreted as something other than a dvandva. Stephanie Jamison and Calvert Watkins have tried to
convince me that the argument in this paper will work just as well if the first element is in fact simply úpa, which
Jamison describes as the “preverb of intimacy”; although I am resistant to this, I shall certainly consider it a friendly
amendment if anyone picks up my idea and modifies it along such a line (see also fn. 29 below).
There is a vast body of secondary literature on competitive riddling both in Indo-European societies and
elsewhere: some orienting encyclopedia entries are Welsh 1993 and Gärtner + Böck 2001. The most recent
collection of essays on riddles, Hasan-Rokem & Shulman, eds. 1996, has a certain emphasis on India (both Indo-
European and Dravidian); note the review article of G. Thompson 1999. For book-length accounts of the riddle in
India (e.g., Skt. prahelik#- and pravalhik#-/pravahlik#-), see Bhagwat 1965 and especially Sternbach 1975, as well
as much work by Wendy Doniger (O’Flaherty), e.g., Doniger 1996; for Greece (a‡nigµa and gr›fo˚), see Schultz
1909, 1912, and 1914 (the last shows tremendous breadth and goes well beyond the Classical world) and Ohlert
1912 (and also now Ford 2002: 72-76 and especially Struck 2004: 21-76 and passim for a literary and cultural
approach to riddling texts and allegory); for extrapolations about Proto-Indo-European, see most fully Bader 1989:
136-48 and passim and Jackson 1999: 49-147 and passim. Note that I am in this paper intentionally avoiding
defining what exactly a “riddle” is; in other contexts this might not be wise, but I see no harm here in eliding the
term with “vebal puzzle,” “wisdom question,” and a host of other phrases used, e.g., in the papers in Hasan-Rokem
& Shulman, eds. 1996.
Even without Freud, the literature on Oedipus is immense. Since the monumental work of Robert 1915,
the scholar who has done the most to increase our understanding of the morphology of the Greek tale and to trace its
many folk-motifs throughout time and space—for the story of Oedipus has analogues the world over, including in
India (see in the first place Aarne—Thompson type 931 [Aarne 1961: 328])—is Lowell Edmunds: see, among much
else, Edmunds 1981a and 1985 and Edmunds & Dundes, eds. 1995 (which includes a revision of Edmunds 1981b on
pp. 147-73 and A. K. Ramanujan’s “Indian Oedipus” on pp. 234-61) and most recently Edmunds 1996, all with
detailed references; compare also Johnson & Price-Williams 1996. Although the Sphinx is certainly the Greek
riddler, some scholars follow Edmunds (see especially Edmunds 1981b and Edmunds in Edmunds & Dundes, eds.
1995: 147-73, esp. 159-61, with 170f.) in believing that her riddle (which has many parallels across cultures: Taylor
types 46-47 [Taylor 1951: 19-24]) is a secondary accretion in the story of Oedipus: the main link would presumably
be feet, the subject of the Riddle of the Sphinx (see immediately below in the text) and a major motif in the life of
Oedipus (Ofid€pou˚), who bears the speaking name “Swollen Foot” (with folk-etymological overtones of wisdom
because of Gk. o‰da ‘know’; note also the historically incorrect, but salient, segmentation -d€pou˚). There are,
however, plenty of Hellenists who are skeptical of Edmunds’s conclusion (see notably Bremmer 1987: 46f., with 55
n. 1 and esp. 57 n. 26, and now also Segal 2001: 33), and I expect that most Indo-Europeanists would be as well
(Bader 1997: 51-53 and passim makes an especially strong statement, though without reference to Edmunds).
Whether the Riddle of the Sphinx and Oedipus are an old pairing or a newer one, it seems worth pointing out that

¶sti d€poun §p‹ g∞˚ ka‹ tetrãpon, o µ€a fvnÆ,

ka‹ tr€pon, éllãssei d¢ fuØn µÒnon, ˜ss’ §p‹ ga›an
•rpetå g€nontai ka‹ én’ afiy°ra ka‹ katå pÒnton.
éll’ ıpÒtan ple€stoisin §reidÒµenon pos‹ ba€n˙,
5 ¶nya tãxo˚ gu€oisin éfaurÒtaton p°lei aÈtoË.

There is something on earth with one voice that is two-footed and four-footed and three-
footed. Alone among however many creatures there are on land and sky and sea, it
changes its nature. But when it proceeds, supported by the most feet, then the swiftness
of its limbs is weakest.14

another link between them is (deviant) sex: as we shall see, the riddle has a number of erotic interpretations, one of
which is almost certainly alluded to already in Hesiod’s tr€podi brot“ ‰soi (Op. 533) ‘like a three-
legged(/footed) man’ (see fn. 42 below); the word poÊ˚ ‘foot’ often has a sexual connotation (“phallus” or “glans”)
in Greek literature (see, e.g., Henderson 1991: 126, 129f., 138, and 248: “The foot as a displacement for the phallus
is very common as a structural symbol in myths and folktales, most notoriously in the story of Oidipous
(swollen/knowledgeable foot/phallus)” [248]) and very clearly does so in the riddling Hesiodic passage just cited,
which mentions two additional famous feet in a thinly veiled description of autoerotism, the one actually ‘thick’ or
‘swollen’ (496f. µØ … / … leptª d¢ paxÁn pÒda xeir‹ pi°z˙˚ ‘lest … you squeeze a swollen foot with
emaciated hand’ [translation: West 1988: 52]), the other too enigmatic to be translated in a footnote but part of what
is surely the single most pored-over bit of Indo-European erotica (524 ˜t’ énÒsteo˚ ˘n pÒda t°ndei; see in the
first place Watkins 1978 [= 1994: (II.)588-92] and 1995: 531, with n. 9, and also—to mention just a few of the
larger-scale works—Bader 1989: 97-188 and 1997 [esp. 44-54] and Jackson 1996 and 1999: 97-126, with 141-47,
and passim); and finally, Oedipus, having solved the riddle posed by a creature who has a thing for young boys (note
the witty characterization of the Sphinx’ taste in Vermeule 1979: 171 and 173), goes on of course to marry his
mother, thus engendering the eponymous Complex. Edmunds 1981a: 233-38 weaves an interesting story about
Oedipus’ name, feet, incest, and kingship, commenting that the “first element of the name Oedipus can express […]
the swelling of the phallus. A Linear B tablet from Pylos has the proper name o-du-pa3-ro (*OfidÊfallo˚)” (236
n. 55); note, though, that the hapax name (PY An 261.5) is usually transcribed o-du-*56-ro since the value of sign
*56 has not yet been firmly established (see the very interesting discussion of Melena 1987). Doniger 1996: 211
and 216 mentions Oedipus and the Riddle of the Sphinx in the course of describing a couple of Sanskrit tales that
combine enigmatic speech, mutilated or unusual feet, and non-standard sex; see also her striking observations about
“The Mortal Foot” in Doniger 1999: 175-85.
This is Asclepiades of Tragilus’ canonical (4th-century B.C.) hexametric version of the riddle (FGrH 12
F 7a Jacoby), preserved in Ath. 10.456b; cf. also, e.g., Apollod. Bibl. 3.5.8 and AP 14.64. There are as many
slightly different versions as there are editions; mine is adapted from the one in Jacoby (who has no comma before
˜ss’ [2] and aÍtoË instead of aÈtoË [5]), but I have nothing invested in the details. Mastronarde 1988: 6f. has the
fullest apparatus, himself favoring énã t’ over ka‹ én’ (3), pleÒnessin over ple€stoisin (4), and µ°no˚
gu€oisin éfaurÒteron over tãxo˚ gu€oisin éfaurÒtaton (5). The most recent edition is that of M. L. West,
who suggests against the current fashion that “[t]here is a good chance that [Athenaeus] took it from the Oedipodea”
(West 2003: 41 n. 1; note the change of heart since West 1978: 293), numbers it fr. 2* (see pp. 40f.; the asterisk
indicates uncertain attribution), and prints the text as I have given it, only with kine›tai instead of g€nontai (3) and
µ°no˚ instead of tãxo˚ (5). See also the important discussion of Lloyd-Jones 1978: 50 and esp. 60f. (= 1990: 323
and esp. 332-34), whose preference for trisso›sin in line 4 rather than ple€stoisin rather changes the sense,
though not in a way that affects anything under consideration here. The riddle is not found as such in the Oedipus
Rex (Segal 2001: 32-37 and passim offers a recent interpretation of the role it nevertheless plays in Sophocles),
though a different but unfortunately fragmentary version, likewise in hexameters and securely identified as part of
Euripides’ lost tragedy Oedipus, was discovered at Oxyrhynchus in the early 1960’s (POxy. 2459 fr. 2.7-10 [4th
century A.D.] = Eur. 83.ii.22-25 Austin); see Turner 1962 (esp. 84 and 86), as well as Lloyd-Jones 1963: 446f. and
Vaio 1964. Other 5th-century allusions to the riddle, noted by West 1978: 293, come from comedy (Epicharm. 147

The Sphinx, it is said, put to death all men who could not answer (i.e., supply the second side of)
her riddle—and that was all men before Oedipus came along and gave a simple response that
made the (unnatural) two-part creature kill herself instead of him, namely ênyrvpo˚ ‘man,’ a
(natural) mono-morphic creature that is nevertheless on four feet as a baby, two as an adult, and
three (with a walking stick) when aged.15 (As we shall see, this riddle, like so many, actually has
more than one possible answer.)
Consider now the word Sf€gj (gen. SfiggÒ˚). In the Greek popular imagination, this
Mischfigur is clearly the “Strangler” and belongs with sf€ggv ‘bind, hold fast’ (see, e.g.,
Chantraine 1999: 1077),16 but her original name, M. L. West has argued forcefully, is Sf€j,

Kassel—Austin), tragedy (Aesch. Ag. 80-82 and Eur. Tro. 275-77), and art (the famous Attic red-figure cup by the
so-called Oedipus Painter and now in the Vatican [Musei Vaticani 16541: ARV2 451.1] has K]AI()TRI[POUN
painted between the Sphinx and Oedipus; it is often thought [see, e.g., Simon 1981: 28-31, esp. 30, with references]
to portray a scene from Aeschylus’ lost satyr-play Sphinx of 467); see also Ar. 545 Kassel—Austin, one of a number
of riddles whose context in Greek society Merkelbach & West 1965: 310 and passim explore illuminatingly. There
is now incontrovertible evidence from the 6th century for the riddle and its association with the Sphinx: Moret 1984:
40 and 169 (+ Planche 23) gives a preliminary account of the fragments of an Attic black-figure hydria from ca.
520/510, now in Basel (coll. Cahn 855), which portrays the Sphinx on her column above a group of Thebans and a
great deal of verbiage all around them, including (according to Moret 1984: 40) “tetrãpoun o ” and “ka‹ tr[”;
this object, which was finally properly published by Kreuzer 1992: 86-88 (I owe the reference to Michael Padgett),
deserves to be better known, and we may hope that the future will yield a proper understanding of all the many
letters (I have quoted Moret directly because I cannot quite make out his readings from the photographs; neither, it
seems, can Kreuzer, who writes, “Auf die Wiedergabe der Beischriften wird hier verzichtet […]; sie sind bisher
nicht gedeutet worden” [88]). For an allusion already in Hesiod’s Works & Days, see fn. 42 below, and note also the
string of riddles, including one about tripods (tr€pode˚) and four-legged tables (trãpezai), in the Keykos gamos
(266 Merkelbach—West; see especially Merkelbach & West 1965: 307-11 and passim). Mastronarde 1994: 20 n. 3
makes the plausible suggestion that “It is not impossible that oral tradition carried several versions independent of
literary context, verses that would be taught to children and recited in the symposium.” Also not impossible is that
there was even at a very early date more than one verbal puzzle associated with the Sphinx, though this view is
based more on speculation than hard evidence (see, e.g., Schultz 1912: 64-69, with special reference to G. Hüsing):
from the 4th century B.C. we have the riddles in Eubulus’ Sphingokarion (one of which is mentioned in fn. 29
below) and two riddles (4 and 18 Nauck/Snell) of Theodectes, who famously enjoyed the genre (as Ath. 10.451e
tells us; compare Xanthakis-Karamanos 1980: 97-102, esp. 97-100, and also Gauly et al. 1991: 292 n. 11);
Theodect. 4, which presents night and day as sisters who cyclically give birth to each other (efis‹ kas€gnhtai
dissa€, œn ≤ µ€a t€ktei / tØn •t°ran, aÈtØ d¢ tekoËs’ ÍpÚ t∞sde teknoËtai), comes from his tragedy
Oedipus and has clear analogues in Sanskrit (Taylor type 1001 [Taylor 1951: 382-86]; see further, e.g., Katz 2000:
80f., with references).
For homologies between multiplex creatures and their multiplex riddles, see the perhaps over-ambitious
words of Schultz 1909: 28f. and 1912: 60-73, who refers particularly to Hüsing’s work on the mythic background of
the Riddle of the Sphinx.
It is easy to see why the Theban Sphinx would be considered a demon of death or KÆr; it is important to
note, though, that other, decorative, sphinxes are associated with death as well, being a common feature on tombs.
The relationship between the Theban riddler and sphinxes in general has yet to be worked out (see fn. 20 below):
Vermeule 1979: 171-75 (see also 69) does not carefully distinguish between the two, whereas Tsiafakis 2003: 80
and passim is frankly skeptical that they can in fact be related. Hoffmann 1994 argues, in my opinion entirely
unconvincingly, that the “connection between tomb monuments and the myth of the Sphinx […] lies [… o]bviously
in the Sphinx’s riddle” (73): he makes much of the words “kai tria” [sic] on the Vatican cup (see fn. 14 above),
suggesting that they allude to the custom of burying the dead on the third day, noting that the third foot is the
“infirmity of old age” and so “the Sphinx’s terse kai tria is obviously a memento mori,” and more generally and
cryptically stating, with reference to H. Usener, “The number three stands for transition, the overcoming of the

without the nasal, a form that has a further variant, without the initial sigma, in F€j*, her
moniker in her very first literary appearance, verse 326 of Hesiod’s Theogony, to which I shall
return.17 Now, representations of “sphinxes” are found throughout Egypt, Mesopotamia, and
Syro-Palestine, dating as far back as the middle of the third millennium B.C.,18 with none so
famous as the Egyptian ones, and quite a number of scholars since B. G. Gunn have suggested
that the very name Sf€gj in Greek is adapted from the Egyptian epithet ßsp-‘n˙ ‘living image,’
used primarily of gods and kings (i.e., beings with which sphinxes are associated).19 But

duality represented by the number two […]. This may explain not only the deeper meaning of the Sphinx’s riddle
but also its connection with Greek initiation and mortuary practice” (75).
Compare inter alios already Robert 1915: I.48, with II.17-21. West 1966: 256 neatly summarizes most
of the evidence for Sf€j (gen. SfikÒ˚) and F€j (gen. FikÒ˚), which are found side by side in Hdn.Gr. 1.396.25f.
(Lentz). The former, which West writes is “probably” original, is recorded by the 9th-century patriarch of
Alexandria Sophronius (Gramm. Gr. IV/2, 400.3f. Hilgard), as well as being found nearly a millennium and a-half
earlier in a ca. 450 B.C. (?) carmen epigraphicum from Thessaly (120 Hansen) and, in the form SFIXS, on a
famous Attic black-figure cup from ca. 540 B.C. (Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlung und Glyptothek 2243: ABV
163f.2) and, it seems, on at least one other object besides (but note that Threatte 1980: 487 suggests that SFIXS
merely exemplifies the orthographic convention whereby a nasal is not represented directly before a stop). As for
F€j, we find this not just in Hesiod (acc. F›k’ (a) in Th. 326), but also in Plato (Cra. 414d Àsper ka‹ tØn
Sf€gga ént‹ “fikÚ˚” [vv.l. figÚ˚, figgÚ˚, etc.] “sf€gga” kaloËsin); note, too, adjectival F€kion t°ra˚
‘Phician monster’ in (ps.-)Lycophr. Alex. 1465, the Hesychian glosses B›ka˚: sf€gga˚ (b606 Latte) and F›ga:
f›ka. sf€gga (f436 Schmidt), and (most important of all) F€k(e)ion, the name of the Sphinx’ mountain home
(first in [Hes.] Sc. 33; see for details, e.g., West 1966: 88, with n. 2, and Moret 1984: 69, with n. 1), which I shall
have occasion to consider again at the end of this paper. According to the scholia to Th. 326 (Di Gregorio), F›ka
ÙloÆn: tØn Sf€gga l°gei. … ép’ aÈt∞˚ §klÆyh ka‹ tÚ F€kion, ¶nya di°tribe [v.l. kat–kei]. F›ka d¢
aÈtØn ofl Boivto‹ ¶legon; but as West 1966: 88 notes, F€j cannot have been an exclusively Boeotian form in
view of Lat. Pix* (the OLD notes of the hapax Picis, a genitive in Plaut. Aul. 701, that it is “app. confused with a
griffin and taken as masc.”; cf. also the gloss of the adjective picatus* in Fest. p. 206M “picati” appellantur
quidam, quorum pedes formati sunt in speciem sphingum, quod eas Dori f›ka˚ uocant). I have no opinion on the
origin or nature of the apparent s-mobile in the name, on which see Strunk 1961 (esp. 162-67) and West 1966: 98f.
and 256; as for the Gutturalwechsel seen in, e.g., F›ga: f›ka (see Furnée 1972: 280 and passim), it is tempting but
risky to try to make something of this (see fn. 35 below).
Stadelmann 2001: 307 writes that the “sphinx is a purely Egyptian creation, first attested in the early
fourth dynasty, about 2575 BCE” and gives a quick assessment of the line of transmission of the image of the sphinx
from Egypt to Syro-Palestine and then to Greece. There is considerable variation in the details of hybridity, but the
head is almost always human (often female, though not usually so in Egypt; see immediately below in the text) and
the body always bestial (frequently leonine). The best-illustrated book of sphinxes from all places and times is
Demisch 1977 (Rösch-von der Heyde 1999 provides a seemingly exhaustive list of modern representations); for an
excellent recent account of Greek Mischwesen in general and their Near Eastern background, see Padgett, ed. 2003,
the catalogue of a sumptuous exhibition at Princeton on the human animal in early Greek art (for sphinxes, see
especially 127f. and 261-83; see also Tsiafakis 2003: 78-83, with 99-101).
Gunn’s idea has a curious history, having been first noted by Alan H. Gardiner, as follows: “An
ingenious suggestion of Mr. Battiscombe Gunn is worth placing on record, though it can, I think, be proved almost
with certainty to be wrong; he conjectures that the word Sfigj [sic] is derived from the epithet sßp [sic] ‘n˙”
(Gardiner 1916: 161). Stadelmann 2001: 307 provides a recent cautiously positive assessment: “In Egypt sphinxes
were generally associated with the sun god and with the king as a ‘living image’ (ßsp-‘n˙); this word may well have
been the origin of the Greek word sphinx, although in Greek this word had the meaning ‘strangler,’ perhaps in
association with the Greek interpretation of the sphinx as a malign creature” (compare McGready 1968: 250); for a
strong statement of the opposite view, however, see Zivie-Coche 2002: 12. As far as I can tell, Martin Bernal does
not anywhere endorse this (or any other) etymology of Sf€gj, though he does now build on the highly suspect
“comparisons” that Velikovsky 1960 has drawn between Oedipus and Akhenaten (accepted, curiously, by Maxwell-
Stuart 1975: 42f.), writing that the “Greek legends have other Egyptian associations, such as the name Thebes and

Egyptian sphinxes are really very different from the (in the first place singular) Theban Sphinx
both anatomically and symbolically, largely being beneficent male stand-ins for pharaohs rather
than a spiteful mythological beast in her own right.20 In addition, although scholars tend to push
this under the rug, the fact remains that ßsp-‘n˙ refers to statues of all sorts and is by no means
tied exclusively to sphinxes.21 Furthermore, the picture the Greeks had of their hybrid creature
was not a direct adaptation of something Egyptian, a fact that Childs 2003: 64 emphasizes:

the Theban sphinx, whose riddle has striking solar associations that fit the role of the great Egyptian sphinx” (Bernal
2001: 336, with 446 n. 54, where he promises a “longer treatment of this topic in Moses and Muses (forthcoming)”).
The Greeks’ decision to take the Boeotian toponym Y∞bai (Myc. te-qa-) and apply it to the Egyptian town Waset
(modern Luxor) has admittedly not received a satisfactory explanation, but (as Jasanoff & Nussbaum 1996: 192
rightly note and as even Bernal 1991: 504-7 would seem to be forced to admit) the existence of te-qa- in Mycenaean
categorically rules out Bernal’s proposed Egyptian etymon/-a dbt ‘shrine; coffin’ and/or db3t ‘chest, box’ of both
place names (see Bernal 1987: 51, 1991: 474f., with 624 n. 136, and now 2001: 154); see for further objections
Jasanoff & Nussbaum 1996: 190f., with 204 n. 11, to which I add that I know of no evidence for Bernal’s dbt (I take
it that he does not mean dbt ‘female hippopotamus’), though there is a rare word db ‘box,’ for which Erman &
Grapow 1931: 434 make a cross-reference to db3t (which, in turn, is the word Egyptologists usually translate as
‘shrine; coffin’ and which is generally believed to be the indirect [see, e.g., É. Masson 1967: 76] or perhaps even
direct [thus Fournet 1989: 73 and 80] source of Gk. y›bi˚/y€bi˚ ‘basket plaited from papyrus’ and a few similar-
looking and likewise plainly foreign forms). As for the putatively “striking solar associations” of the two sphinxes,
the Greek riddle in its standard form does not obviously have to do with sun (I imagine that Bernal is thinking of the
tradition in which the number of legs depends on the time of day [Taylor type 47], on which see especially Taylor
1951: 19-24; compare also the riddle of Theodectes quoted at the end of fn. 14 above) and any claim that the Great
Sphinx at Giza itself was built in accordance with solar phenomena is (pace, e.g., Demisch 1977: 16-21, 230-35, and
passim) probably exaggerated (compare Stadelmann 2001: 310 and Zivie-Coche 2002: 39f.).
Broad accounts can be found in the back-to-back entries of G. Roeder (“Sphinx, der ägyptische”) and J.
Ilberg (“Sphinx, die griechische”) in Roscher 1909-1915: 1298-1408 and also in Demisch 1977: 16-39, 76-100, and
passim; see also Lesky + Herbig 1929 and now Seidlmayer + Johannsen + Bäbler 2001. For Egyptian sphinxes in
general, see, e.g., Coche-Zivie 1984 (1144f., with 1147, on their status as royal symbols); Stadelmann 2001 and
Zivie-Coche 2002 concentrate on the Great Sphinx. As for Greece and the Classical world, see most notably the
LIMC entries of Krauskopf 1994 (esp. 1/3-9 + plates on pp. 2/6-14) and Kourou et al. 1997 (esp. 1/1149-65 + plates
on pp. 2/794-808). It is true that I am here glossing over the distinction between the Theban Sphinx and generic
representations of sphinxes in Greek sculpture and vase painting (compare fn. 16 above; note the separate entries for
“Sphinx” and “sphinxes” in the Index to Padgett, ed. 2003, as well as the fact that sphinxes get their due in LIMC
only in the Supplement, with the main discussion subsumed under “Oidipous”): on the one hand, while most
Egyptian sphinxes fit the same basic mold (if size is eliminated as a factor), there is a world of difference between
Oedipus’ interlocutor and the decorative creatures depicted on buildings, monuments, and objects of everyday use
(see, e.g., Moret 1984: 3, as well as K. Manchester in Padgett, ed. 2003: 271); furthermore, if the etymology of
Sf€gj that I propose in this paper is correct, it probably follows that the name spread from the Theban creature to
other hybrids (semantic widening, as posited by, e.g., West 1966: 257) rather than undergoing specialization
(semantic narrowing seems to be many scholars’ default assumption).
Christiane Zivie-Coche has done the most to dispel the myth that ßsp-‘n˙ actually means ‘sphinx’: see
Coche-Zivie 1984: 1140 and, for a less scholarly summary, Zivie-Coche 2002: 12. She writes as follows: “Quant au
mot ßzp [‘image’] ou à l’expression ßzp ‘n˙ [‘living image’], on a voulu y voir le nom égyptien du sphinx. Le terme
est en fait un des nombreux mots qui servent à désigner la statue ou l’image d’un roi ou d’un dieu. Il est vrai que ce
vocable a pour déterminatif dans un certain nombre de cas un sp[hinx] couchant, parfois posé sur un piédestal. Ce
dernier signe avec ses variantes peut également être utilisé comme signe-mot pour écrire ßzp. Enfin à l’Epoque
Ptolémaïque, la graphie du sphinx couchant tenant un signe ‘n˙ entre ses pattes est banale pour écrire ßzp ‘n˙.
Néanmoins l’analyse des exemples où le terme apparaît ainsi que l’examen de leur contexte n’autorise pas à traduire
ßzp ou ßzp ‘n˙ par ‘sphinx’ mais seulement par ‘statue’, ‘image’. Il ne semble pas qu’il ait existé un terme
spécifique correspondant uniquement à notre concept limitatif de ‘sphinx’” (Coche-Zivie 1984: 1140, with
bibliographical details in the omitted footnotes). Even though ßsp and ßsp-‘n˙ are, then, clearly not connected
exclusively to sphinxes, I do get the impression from the standard Hieroglyphic Egyptian dictionary that this is their
primary association (see Erman & Grapow 1930: 536).

“Even though the sphinx had its origin in Egypt, it is clear that the Greeks learned of it from the
Levant, where it was particularly popular with the Phoenicians […]. This avenue of transmission
is important because it emphasizes the minor role Egypt played in the Greek ‘Orientalizing
revolution’” (compare fn. 18 above).22 And finally and most damningly, it is one thing to think
that ßsp-‘n˙ might have been transformed into Sf€gj but quite another to imagine that it became
the nasal-less Sf€j or F€j.23 It may of course be, though, that ßsp-‘n˙ had some secondary
influence on the development of the usual Greek name Sf€gj, much as sf€ggv quite evidently
did.24 In any case, the story remains to be told of just how the Greek word came to be used for
the Egyptian creature (as in so many languages today), but this is not the place to tell it.25
I propose an entirely different etymology of our Greek monster. At a glance, (S)F€j,
gen. (S)FikÒ˚ looks very much indeed like the Greek body part f€ki˚ ‘buttocks; anus’ that I
have suggested is cognate with Skt. sphij-. Is this merely a Scheingleichung or could they in fact
somehow be underlyingly the same word? There is a potentially serious phonological problem:
the iota in (S)F+k- ‘Sphinx’ is long (cf., e.g., Hesiod’s F›k’ (a), with circumflex and anyway in

What goes for art also applies, mutatis mutandis, to language. There appear to be considerably more
very early borrowings into Greek from Northwest Semitic (e.g., Hebrew and Phoenician) than from Egyptian: É.
Masson 1967 surveys the Greco-Semitic evidence and Fournet 1989 gives the most recent sober account of
linguistic contact between Greeks and Egyptians; see also Jasanoff & Nussbaum 1996: 187-89 and passim.
Already J. G. Frazer suggested that the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx had an Egyptian origin, and
Goedicke 1970: 264f. and passim proposes that it is connected specifically to the fragmentary Middle Kingdom
“Story of the Herdsman,” in which a man meets a strange female creature, usually taken to be the sexually charged
goddess Hathor, who can appear in her vengeful aspect as the half-woman half-lioness Sekhmet (there is, however,
no evidence that the creature in this story is leonine); see now Parkinson 1997: 287f., with 295, for an authoritative
translation and Parkinson 2002: 300 for a brief discussion of the tale, with references to the secondary literature.
While it is, I suppose, possible that the Egyptian and Greek stories are somehow connected (I consider it nearly out
of the question that there has been direct borrowing), the follow-up idea linguistic idea of Edwin L. Brown is
extremely far-fetched: according to Brown 1974, P3˙t ‘She who Scratches,” the epithet of a leonine goddess (the
usual determiner is a recumbent lion), is the source of Hesiod’s F€j (I note that the word P3˙t, which Brown
mistakenly writes “P3qt,” is not actually found in the Egyptian tale).
Compare West 1966: 256: “The familiar form Sf€gj may have arisen from popular etymology which
connected the name with sf€ggv, or from the analogy of alternating forms like str€j/str€gj” (the last is usually
said to be onomatopoetic: see, e.g., Chantraine 1999: 1064). I note in passing that Durling 1993: 308 claims that
Galen employs a medical term sf€gj ‘binding tight, contraction’ in 1.219.10 (Kühn). If this were true, the word
would of course be a derivative of sf€ggv and, as a homophone of Sf€gj, would merit its own entry in the LSJ; in
fact, however, Durling’s “sf€gj” is just a typographical error for sf€gji˚, an otherwise attested term (see the
following footnote).
Zivie-Coche 2002: 10-12 gives a recent account. Since in my view the Greek word Sf€gj ultimately
has a Proto-Indo-European source, the issue is how and why a Hellenic term was applied to the Great Sphinx itself
(first in a Latin source: Plin. HN 36.77) and other, less prominent, examples of Egyptian hybrid creatures (beginning
with the plural éndrÒsfigge˚* ‘male sphinxes’ in Hdt. 2.175; sf€gge˚ te ka‹ grËpe˚ ‘sphinxes and griffins’ in
Scythian architecture are mentioned in Hdt. 4.79)—the opposite, in effect, of the idea that ßsp-‘n˙ was borrowed
from Egyptian into Greek, where it was then adapted to Sf€gj. (It is notable that once Greeks decide that the Great
Sphinx is a sf€gj, it is easy for them to play further linguistic games with sf€ggv and its derivatives, despite the
fact that this makes little sense in the Egyptian cultural context: Jean-Yves Carrez-Maratray, building on a neglected
idea of G. Kaibel, has written a delightful paper [Carrez-Maratray 1993] on a ludic, acrostic-containing poem from
around the end of the 2nd century A.D. [?] that is actually inscribed on the base of the Great Sphinx and contains the
word sf€gji˚—literally ‘constriction,’ but here it conveys that the Sphinx, or at least this very piece of verse about
the Sphinx, is itself a brain-squeezing puzzle or “casse-tête.”) See Katz 2003 for some further details (my n. 5 there
should be lightly revised in view of Carrez-Maratray’s discussion, as should Zivie-Coche 2002: 109f.).

the “princeps” of the second foot of the hexameter),26 whereas that in fik- and (o)sp(h)íj- is
short.27 As we shall see, this does not doom the idea. For the moment, though, let me
concentrate on the apparent morphological-cum-semantic difficulty. Although it may seem
patently absurd initially, there is in fact no a priori reason why Sphinx should not at some level
mean ‘buttocks’: humans, at least, are frequently named after lower body parts,28 and in
iconography, the monster’s haunches are typically emphasized. On this interpretation, the name
Sphinx might actually be connected to the creature’s riddling nature, as Georges-Jean Pinault
cleverly points out to me: the greatest riddle of all is sex and the greatest sexual riddle the
forbidden part of one’s own body that one cannot see, namely the buttocks or anus. There is
cross-cultural evidence for the association between trickster figures and subcaudal body parts,
including the anus, and taking the Sphinx to be an inherently sexual enigma is culturally
plausible even just from the point of view of Greece, as I discuss below.29 Alternatively, the
existence of Skt. upaspíjam, seemingly a compound “lap-buttock,” in a context in which the
Greek creature would feel more or less at home raises the possibility of a Greco-Indic equation.
Of course the Greek creature is not a “Hyposphinx” (~ upaspíj-), but it is not impossible to
imagine that Sf€j is a front-clipped form of an old name like “Lap-Buttock,” a compound that,
having become opaque, lost its first element (which would presumably have been interpreted
anyway as nothing more than the comparatively unexciting preverb Ípo-)—all this perhaps
under the influence of ßsp-‘n˙ or sf€ggv or something else entirely.

There is, of course, no way to tell on metrical or accentual grounds that the vowel in the nominative
singular, (S)F€j, is (naturally) long, but Hdn.Gr. 2.9.5 (Lentz) states that it is; see now Probert 2003: 84.
I have little doubt but that the root iota in f€ki˚ is short, and yet the evidence is flimsier than scholars
make it out to be (see Katz 2004: 283 n. 22).
The most detailed study of the phenomenon of anatomical pars pro toto focuses on Latin (Adams 1982a;
see also Adams 1982b: Index [271] s.v. pars pro toto), where the considerable majority of cases are overtly sexual
(e.g., Mentula ‘Mr. Prick’); for Greek (where the locus classicus is the seemingly abusive gast°re˚ o‰on [Th. 26]
‘mere bellies’ in Hesiod’s Dichterweihe, for which a new interpretation is offered in Katz & Volk 2000), Bain 1994
makes a good start with his discussion of a graffito from ca. 400 B.C. about a man from Thorikos called ı
prvktÒ˚ ‘(known as) Asshole’ (compare Neumann 1999: 202-5 and see also Bain 1995 and 1999a). An apparent
example of the reverse phenomenon—totum pro parte in the development of a word for ‘badger’ into something like
‘anus’—is treated in Katz 1998a and 2002.
The most famous American trickster figure, the lecherous Mr. Coyote, is “grossly erotic” (Ricketts 1965:
327); see, e.g., Bright 1993: 65-83 and 146-51 and Erdoes & Ortiz 1998: 53-78. As for the backside, Erdoes & Ortiz
1998: 79-89 collect a number of funny tales about Coyote’s anus and artful farts, Bright 1993: 124-30 gives a
version of a Kathlamet Chinook story in which Coyote and Badger “trade assholes” (but the really important anus
here is Badger’s: see Katz 2002: 298 n. 9), and Hyde 1998: 29-31 (a reference I owe to James Tatum), building on
work by Paul Radin, tells a couple of stories from the Winnebago Trickster Cycle in which the voracious hero’s
genitals, anus, and intestines are very much on display (see Radin 1956: 136-46 for a psychological interpretation of
the Trickster’s sex life). On the prophetic fart in Hymn. Hom. Merc. 296 of the leading Greek trickster figure,
Hermes, see Katz 1999 (to the references, add Daniel 1985: 129f. and passim and Bain 1986); in that paper I cite a
riddle of Eubulus about the resemblance between a man and his prvktÒ˚ (106.1-9 Kassel—Austin = 107.1-9
Hunter). This riddle comes, as David Rosenbloom reminds me, from (of all places) the comic playwright’s
Sphingokarion and may indeed have been one of a number of enigmas associated with the Sphinx (thus Schultz
1912: 67; compare the end of fn. 14 above); see Hunter 1983: 70 and 199-208, esp. 200-3, on the prvktÒ˚-riddle
in particular and what we know about the play in general. Note also the recent (19th-century+) German verb
verarschen ‘mock; trick,’ a clear derivative of the noun Arsch ‘arse,’ though according to Kluge—Seebold 1995:
854, the “Übertragungsmotiv [is] unklar.” The idea that the backside is itself associated with riddles and aggression
would help with Jamison and Watkins’s view (see fn. 11 above) that upaspíjam is simply sp(h)ij- plus the preverb

It can hardly be doubted that some aspects of the Theban Sphinx are based on Near
Eastern cultural influence or, for that matter, on inner-Greek imagination. But the idea that she
has a linguistic antecedent in Proto-Indo-European is perfectly plausible: to judge from Hesiod’s
genealogy (Th. 270-336), many of her relatives have good Indo-European names, including her
probable mother the Chimaera (X€µaira ‘She-Goat’ ← PIE *©him-r-, a derivative of the word
for ‘winter’: “one-winter-old animal”), probable grandmother the Hydra (ÜUdra ‘Water Snake’
← PIE *ud-ró-, a derivative of the word for ‘water’), and certain great-grandmother the Echidna
(ÖExidna ‘Viper’ ← PIE *h1eg∑h- ‘snake’).30 Furthermore, there are at least two other, and
mutually independent, reasons to believe that the story of the Sphinx and her riddle, if not also
her name, goes back to Proto-Indo-European or at least to the time when Greek and Indo-Iranian
formed a unity. The one is Walter Porzig’s demonstration that the riddle finds parallels in Indic
and Italic phraseology, which suggests that it contains at least some inherited material (see
Porzig 1953). Despite the acclaim his brief article has received (it is, e.g., reprinted in Schmitt,
ed. 1968: 172-76), Porzig’s bowdlerization of the riddle (its original form would be only the first
verse of the five given above, opposing the two- and four-footed beings, i.e., humans and beasts)
does not actually seem to have won wide acceptance, and I admit to not finding his comparison
with Skt. dvipác cátu≠pad asm£kaª sárvam astv an#turám (RV 10.97.20cd) ‘may our two-
footed (and) four-footed (ones) all be healthy’ and Umbr. ditu … totar iouinar dupursus /
peturpursus fato fito (Tab. Ig. VIb 10f.) ‘grant … to the two-footed (and) four-footed (ones) of
the Iguvine state (in) word (and) deed’ an especially compelling demonstration of
“indogermanische Dichtersprache.”31
Much more interesting, in my opinion, is Toshifumi Got^’s comparison between the
extremely rare Greek verb §lefa€roµai*, attested only three times and apparently meaning
‘bamboozle ( vel sim.),’ with Skt. valh- (almost always with either úpa or prá) ‘confuse by
means of riddles’: the Proto-Indo-European root *∑elh1(-)bh-, which he sees also in Lith. vìlbinti
(vìlbinu) ‘lure; mock,’ makes a simple thematic present in Sanskrit, while an r(/n?)-stem noun
*∑élh1bh-‰ ‘riddle’ forms the basis for the Greek denominative in *-„é/ó-.32 Got^ points out that
the Sanskrit verb is used in brahmodya, including in VS 23.51 (etád brahmann úpavalh#masi tv#
/ kím svin na˛ prátivoc#sy átra ‘This [i.e., previously uttered questions about the nature of man],

For the genealogy, see West 1966: 244 and (for explanations of why I twice write “probable”) 254f. and
256. Clay 1993: 113-16 and 2003: 159-61 argues that Hesiod’s catalogue of monsters deliberately creates the
“impossibility of ascertaining the precise parentage of some of its members” (1993: 115 and 2003: 160).
For further examples of the juxtaposition of two- and four-footed creatures, especially in Sanskrit but
also elsewhere, see Schmitt 1967: 12f. and 210-13; for the Indo-European “folk taxonomy of wealth” into which this
schema fits, see Watkins 1979: 275 and passim (= 1994: [II.]650 and passim) and 1995: 210f. Floyd 1992 accepts
Porzig’s basic argument and makes some interesting observations in the course of building on it; by contrast, the
extra-Hellenic comparisons of Bader 1997: 51-53 and passim rely on the essential integrity of the riddle as
transmitted. Ruben 1979: 362f. makes some tentative claims about the relationship between the Riddle of the
Sphinx and some riddles in India, which he vaguely suggests “may be derived even from [the common Proto-]Indo-
European tradition” (363). Knobloch 1980 adduces as a would-be Slavic analogue the Polish noun kuternoga
‘bandy-legged one; cripple,’ which he analyzes etymologically as “three-legged” (cf., e.g., Ukr. trynih, gen. -noha)
plus a pejorative prefix.
See Got^ 1995 (briefly already Got^ 1987: 293f., with n. 695a) for the details, which are not
phonologically entirely straightforward for Sanskrit; Got^’s conclusions are accepted by Mayrhofer 1995: 527
(“[w]ohl”), Werba 1997: 471 (also “wohl”), and M. Kümmel in Rix 2001: 678. Alan Nussbaum demurs, suggesting
in a personal communication that the Greek verb is based on §lafrÒ˚ (< PIE *h1lˆg∑h-ró-) ‘light’ (cf. the English
idiom to make light of). In any case, Got^’s paper deserves much more than to be ignored by Hellenists (most
recently by Clay 2003: 158).

o Brahmin, we present to you as a riddle. How, pray, will you answer us on this point?’), which,
as noted above, is part of the classic brahmodyic sequence with which the Rigvedic context of
upaspíjam is regularly compared. As for the Greek, the very passage in Hesiod that first
mentions the Sphinx (Th. 326-32), with the famous Boeotian form F›k’ (a) (326), is one of the
three loci of §lefa€roµai (330 §lefa€reto), where the verb describes what the Sphinx’
brother, the Nemean Lion, went about doing to the Cadmean countryfolk (translation: West
1988: 12f.)33:

≤ d’ êra F›k’ ÙloØn t°ke Kadµe€oisin ˆleyron,

ÖOryƒ Ípodµhye›sa, Neµeia›Òn te l°onta,
tÒn =’ ÜHrh yr°casa DiÚ˚ kudrØ parãkoiti˚
gouno›sin kat°nasse Neµe€h˚, p∞µ’ ényr≈poi˚.
330 ¶ny’ êr’ ˜ g’ ofike€vn §lefa€reto fËl’ ényr≈pvn,
koiran°vn Trhto›o Neµe€h˚ ±d’ ÉAp°santo˚:
éllã • ‚˚ §dãµasse b€h˚ ÑHraklhe€h˚.

But she [probably the Chimaera], surrendering to Orthos, bore the baneful Sphinx [i.e.,
“Phix”], death to the people of Cadmus, and the Nemean Lion, which Hera, Zeus’
honoured wife, fostered and settled in the foothills of Nemea, an affliction for men.
There it lived, harassing [= §lefa€reto] the local peoples, monarch of Tretos in Nemea
and of Apesas; but mighty Heracles’ force overcame it.

That it is, according to Hesiod, the Nemean Lion who does the bamboozling, rather than his
sister the half-lioness Sphinx herself, is obviously a matter that needs further discussion (see,
briefly, Got^ 1995: 366 and 368 n. 10). Still, it is surely not difficult to imagine either that both
siblings have a share in riddling or that a trait of the sister has here been applied to the brother.34
Let me now summarize briefly the logical chain that I have tried to establish before
turning to one final point:

(1) Skt. sphij-/sphig∞- ‘hip; buttock’ is cognate with Gk. f€ki˚ ‘buttocks; anus’ (see Katz

Got^ 1995: 370 n. 15 does mention upaspíjam, but very much in passing, and his comment about it is
rather different from what I am trying to show in this paper. I note that valh- is usually accompanied by the
“preverb of intimacy” úpa (see fn. 11 above), as in VS 23.51 úpavalh#masi; as for the other preverb with which it is
associated, prá ‘before, forth,’ note that the oldest Sanskrit term for ‘riddle’ (see fn. 12 above) is pravalhik#-, which
commentators on the Atharvaveda consider synonymous with brahmódya- (see especially Sternbach 1975: 16 n. 2
and 34, with n. 68, and note also Got^ 1995: 367 n. 4).
The other two instances of §lefa€roµai are in Hom. Il. 23.388 (§lefhrãµeno˚) and Od. 19.565, the
latter in the famous riddling speech of Penelope to the disguised Odysseus about the gates of horn through which
true dreams pass and the gates of ivory (564 §l°fanto˚) that deceive (§lefa€rontai). Got^ 1995: 369 follows
the communis opinio in relating Ùlof≈Ûo˚ ‘destructive (vel sim.)’ (Od. 4x as neuter plural, e.g., of Circe’s dÆnea
‘wiles’ in 10.289). He also brings into the discussion ÉElefÆnvr (leader of the Abantes: Il. 2.540 and 4.463),
which he translates as ‘Männer [durch Rätsel] in Verwirrung bringend’ (369); I have no opinion on the correctness
of this analysis, but his further suggestion on p. 370 that the Mycenaean personal name e-re-pa-i-ro (KN Vc 212)
might be related cannot be right since (as Robert Plath points out to me) it would then be spelled *we-.

(2) sphij- is found, in slightly altered form, in the Rigvedic hapax compound upaspíjam,
which means ‘trick or two-sided question,’ a sense that can be explained if we
understand its literal meaning to be “lap-buttock”;
(3) upaspíjam appears in a riddling brahmodyic context that has analogues in other Indo-
European traditions;
(4) The most famous riddler in the linguistically and culturally closely related Greek
tradition is the Sphinx (in the first place (S)F€j, stem (S)F+k-), who is associated
with an agonistic enigma of a sort similar to the one in whose context upaspíjam
appears; and
(5) The very name (S)F+k(/g)-35 may be related to f€ki˚ and thus be the same as the
element ospíj- (presumably *osphíj-) in upaspíjam, however the details are to be
accounted for.

What this leaves unexplained is why (S)F+k- has a long root vowel while f€ki˚ and
sphij-/upaspíjam have a short one. The most likely solution is that (S)F+k- shows “expressive
lengthening,” a phenomenon that has been invoked to account for the unexpected phonology of
names for other scary creatures as well.36 While this scenario must remain speculative, it is
interesting that within Greek culture, there is one piece of evidence that connects the Sphinx to
the very root fik- ‘buttocks; anus’—the “missing Sphinx,” as it were, and an association that is
anyway in keeping with the Greeks’ view of this riddler. If we remember that riddles, even
when uttered in serious contexts, cross-culturally very frequently have a bawdy element,37 we

It would be nice if the voiced -g- in Sf€gj and Hesychius’ F›ga (see fn. 17 above) were old, for the
velar would then match the -j-/-g- of Skt. sphij-/sphig∞-. But there is no independent reason to believe in its
The classic example in Greek is ˆpfi˚ ‘SNAKE!’ rather than ˆfi˚ (< *h1og∑h-, with the same root as
¶xi˚/ÖExidna, mentioned above in the text): the weightier form, with expressive gemination, finds support in both
Homer and Hipponax (see, e.g., West 1974: 89f.; I note that West prints ˆpfin at 12.208 in the text of his new
Teubner Iliad). Another case (see Katz 1998b: 328f. and passim) is the double -ll- in various words that go back to
the Proto-Indo-European word for ‘eel,’ *(h1)el-, e.g., the name of the Hittites’ fabled adversary, illuy-ankaß
(literally “eel-snake”), Lat. angu-%lla ‘eel’ (literally “snake-eel”), and Gk. ¶llue˚ (which Hsch. e2176 glosses as
z“a §n t“ Sµarãgdƒ potaµ“; Latte is wrong to obelize the lemma). For a recent survey of Greek expressive
gemination, especially in onomastics, where it is particularly common, see O. Masson 1986 (= 1990: [II.]549-61)
and now also Bain 1999a on the name Dril(l)Òµu˚, a compound of dr›lo˚ ‘worm’ and µË˚ ‘mouse’ (91 n. 5 on
the possibility of “expressive gemination, a constant feature of Greek anthroponymy”). For another, and not
mutually exclusive, approach to the long iota in (S)F+k-, see fn. 45 below.
See, e.g., Watkins 1978 (= 1994: [II.]588-92)—brief and very much to the point. Referring to Jakobson,
Watkins 1978: 234f. (= 1994: [II.]591f.) cites a blatantly sexual riddling phrase in Old Czech that is associated with
marriage rites, and in fact, the telling of bawdy jokes is cross-culturally common at weddings; compare Merkelbach
& West 1965: 315f. and passim on the many riddles, including one about three- and four-footed objects, that
Heracles recites at the wedding-feast of Ceyx in the fragmentary (ps.-)Hesiodic poem (see fn. 14 above).
Furthermore, people everywhere tell tales about the man who gets himself a bride by solving a conundrum (or by
outwitting a princess herself in competitive riddling: Aarne—Thompson type 851 [Aarne 1961: 285f.]), and it has
not escaped scholars’ notice that, according to the usual version of the story, Oedipus is offered his mother’s hand
precisely because he is able to get past the Sphinx (nevertheless, Edmunds 1981b and Edmunds in Edmunds and
Dundes, eds. 1995 [esp. 147-55, with 168f.] argues forcefully that Oedipus originally married Jocasta on account of
having slain the monster [Aarne—Thompson type 300 (Aarne 1961: 88-90)] rather than resolved an enigma; see fn.
13 above). In an article on 17th-century German “Hochzeitsrätsel,” Max Hippe cites a 1623 “Anspielung auf das
sog. Sphinxrätsel,” a riddle with the answer “Mann” that contains such lines as Auff Erden lebt ein Thier, je mehr

will not be surprised to find in Greek artists and writers a tendency to turn the Sphinx, whose
inherent eroticism Vermeule 1979: 171-75, with 248f., has rightly emphasized, into a figure of
sexual satire.38 As Schauenburg 1982: 233 puts it, “Ein eigenartiger Aspekt der Sage ist die
Häufigkeit, mit der sie parodiert wurde. Kein anderer Mythos dürfte in so vielen antiken
Landschaften in karikierender Form gestaltet worden sein.”39 The most dramatic example has
until recently been a 5th-century B.C. Corinthian cup of the Sam Wide Group in Oxford first
published by Boardman 1970: a (male) Sphinx with an oversized penis masturbates on Oedipus
from atop his column, “a very odd way,” as Boardman writes, “of expressing chagrin and disgust
with Oedipus’ solution of the riddle” (194).40
Now, however, we are in possession of another breathtakingly parodic Sphinx, and this
time it is an anally oriented one. As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, POxy. 4502,
published only a few years ago (Parsons 1999), consists of five sexually explicit epigrams by
Nicarchus, four of them hitherto unknown and one of these, eight verses long (30-37), titled by
its editor “the Sphinx unriddled” (Parsons 1999: 53). While the reading of parts of the epigram
and the precise interpretation are obscure even to some of today’s most distinguished Hellenists
and papyrologists, it quite clearly provides a pederastic explanation of the Riddle of the Sphinx:

30 tØn] érxØn t€ d€poun tetrãpoun te tr[€]poun t’ §p‹ ga€hi

oÈ]ye‹˚ e‰xe l°gein. ¶sti d’ a[..]. payikÒ˚.
o] to˚ ßv˚ ßsth{i}ke, d€pou˚: épereis[ã]µeno˚ d¢
...]xera˚ éµfot°rou˚ kÊbda xaµa‹ tet[r]ãpou˚.
t«i] fall«i dautvide tr€pou˚ to .efikionaut..
35 ˘n t]rÒpon §n YÆ{i}bai˚ plhs€on §st‹ l°pa˚.
oÈ]k ên ti˚ di°loito sof≈teron: efi tÒy’ Íp∞rxon,
êndre˚, §g≈{i}, YÆba˚ ¶sxon ín •ptapÊlou[˚].

At first, no one was able to say what on earth is two-footed, four-footed, and three-
footed. Well, it’s a pathic man. When he stands, he is two-footed. And supporting
himself on his two hands, head down to the ground, he is four-footed. But with his
phallus he is three-footed, and his f€kion is like (explains the name of?) the rock nearby
in Thebes. No one could interpret this more wisely: if I’d been there then, I’d have taken
seven-gated Thebes.41

das Füss thut haben, / Dest langsamer es geht, vnd g’mach hinvon thut traben. / Je wenigers Füss hat, je schnellers
lauffen thut, / Und führet seinen leib daher mit grossem mutt (Hippe 1933: 434, with n. 1).
Note that the mid-4th-century B.C. comic poet Anaxilas refers to prostitutes as Theban sphinxes:
Sf€gga Yhba€an d¢ pãsa˚ ¶sti tå˚ pÒrna˚ kale›n (22.22 Kassel—Austin); the line is followed
immediately by a dirty riddle about four-footed, three-footed, and two-footed sexual positions (see, e.g., Henderson
1991: 180 and 250). A century earlier, Callias similarly called whores Megarika‹ sf€gge˚ ‘Megarian sphinxes’
(28 Kassel—Austin, preserved in Phot. Lex. µ174 Theodoridis = Suda µ385 Adler).
The most penetrating and detailed discussion of the satyrical Sphinx, especially her (sometimes his …)
sexual characteristics, is in Moret 1984: 137-50 and 188f. (+ Planches 90-96), as well as 11 and 165 (+ Planche 3/2).
See also, e.g., Schauenburg 1982: 233 and Moret 1984: 144-46 and 189 (+ Planche 96/1). It is
unfortunate that we do not know more about Aeschylus’ satyr-play Sphinx (Simon 1981 gives a clear account that
shows just how little we can surmise).
For the edited text, see Parsons 1999: 49. Parsons does not venture a complete translation; this is my
tentative version, based on his notes and suggested emendations (see immediately below in the text, with fn. 43).

The poem begins by quoting a version of the familiar riddle, only to move swiftly into
subversive territory by giving as the solution not “man,” but rather “pathic, passive
homosexual”: note that the probable restoration in line 31, due to J. R. Rea, is é[nØ]r payikÒ˚
(see Rea and D. Obbink apud Parsons 1999: 54).
The critical line, 34, is unfortunately the one that is most difficult to account for (Parsons
1999: 54 writes that it is “[n]ot really understood”), but the third leg seems to be the phallus
rather than an old man’s walking stick42—Merkelbach & West 1965: 311 n. 31 do point out,
after all, that a “word like tr€pou˚ lent itself to use in riddles”—and we also find the sequence
…fikion…, which Parsons and Obbink (see fn. 43 below) propose refers simultaneously, in a
punning way, to the well-known name of the Sphinx’ mountain, F€kion (derived from (S)F+k-
‘Sphinx’ and likewise with a long -+-; compare fn. 17 above), and to the unfamiliar body part
f€kion ‘(little?) arse’ (with a short -Ø-), a derivative of our new vulgar friend f€ki˚. Of course the
pun on the homosexual’s upended backside ignores the quantity of the iota (Parsons 1999: 54:
“If there is a pun, it ignores quantity”), but of course this sort of thing is allowed and arguably
even encouraged in puns. Since “fikion” makes up the fifth foot of a hexametric line (ÓÔÔ), the
iota by rights scans long and so the word means in the first place ‘Mt. Phikion’; but at the same
time, however the line is to be emended, there is a clear invitation to mount phikion as well.43
Like many Hellenistic poets, Nicarchus enjoyed erotic wordplay,44 and there is no reason
to believe that his lewd and ludic …fikion… reflects any awareness of an actual etymological
connection between the name of the hybrid creature and the body part.45 Nevertheless, the link

I write “seems to be the phallus” because the first letter of fall«i is maddeningly uncertain (see
Parsons 1999: 54). Fraenkel 1950: II.90 (with reference to Wilamowitz; see also II. 50 and III.581f., with 582 n. 1)
and Taylor 1951: 21 plausibly suggest that there may be a very early hint of the Greeks’ knowledge of the Riddle of
the Sphinx in Hes. Op. 533 tr€podi brot“ ‰soi ‘like a three-legged(/footed) man’; see also, e.g., Jackson 1999:
99, with 141f. n. 217, and especially West 1978: 293, who gives a quick survey of similar evidence from the 5th
century B.C. (see fn. 14 above), defends the reading brot“ over broto€, and cites RV 10.117.8, a virtuoso riddle
about feet and numbers. This phrase appears in a section of the Works & Days whose sexually riddling character
and emphasis on feet has received a great deal of attention (see fn. 13 above), and I attempt in a forthcoming paper
to give a coherent explanation of why it is entirely reasonable to read tr€pou˚ here with more than a soupçon of
phallic innuendo. Parsons 1999: 54 does not cite Hesiod but does compare Theocritus’ description of Priapus as
triskelÆ˚ (AP 9.437.3) ‘three-legged,’ noting, however, that A. S. F. Gow in his edition (Epigr. 4.3 Gow = 20.3
Gow—Page) rejects the unanimously transmitted triskel°˚ (codd.) as “improbable” (Gow & Page 1965: II.535:
“The suggestion that the phallus counts as a third leg is grotesque”) and prints instead O. Jahn’s emendation
éskel°˚ ‘legless’ (Franzoi 1998: 80 casts a recent vote for triskel°˚; Rossi 2001: 109f. and esp. 156f. gives a
balanced, if somewhat muddled, discussion).
Parsons 1999: 54 concludes, “How can these elements be combined? […] I have no ideas that do not
involve substantial emendation. Say, t«i] fall«i d’ aÈtÒ˚ te tr€pou˚, tÚ d¢ f€kion aÈtoË …, ‘He himself
has a third leg with his phallus, and …’. And then? If the next clause expands the same joke, it might perhaps mean
‘… and his backside (is) like the rock nearby in Thebes’ (sticking up in the air). But perhaps, as Dirk Obbink
suggests, we should see it as a secondary joke of mythological pseudo-etymology: ‘… and his backside is (explains
the name of) the rock Phikion near Thebes’.”
For an appreciation of Nicarchus, see now Nisbet 2003: 82-97 and passim; noting that the poet is
“noticeably ruder on papyrus” (82), Nisbet cites a forthcoming paper on the new poems (POxy. 4501 as well as
4502), which were published too late for him to take proper account of them.
Similarly, Nicarchus’ cavalier attitude to vowel length cannot be used as evidence in the reconstruction
of the original phonology of (S)F+k- and fik-. It cannot be excluded, however, that the cross-cultural tolerance of

between the Sphinx and the anal sphincter46—a body part to which the final adjective in the
poem, •ptãpulo˚ ‘seven-gated,’ alludes as well47—holds no surprise to the comparative
folklorist and may perfectly well reflect a historically deep tradition of sexual riddling.48 Not

linguistic inexactitude in the context of riddles might have contributed to the unexpected, and presumably
secondary, phonological form of (S)F+k- (long vowel) and, for that matter, Skt. upaspíjam (lack of aspiration).
It is impossible to avoid thinking that there must be some sort of interesting connection between Sf€gj
and sfigktÆr ‘something that binds’ (compare “the Sphinx’ posterior sphincter” in fn. 48 below), just as there
evidently is between Sf€gj and sf€ggv (see above in the text, with fn. 24). From a strictly linguistic point of
view, the two are not easily equatable, given the claim to antiquity of (S)F+k- vis-à-vis Sf€gj and the
synchronically clear morphological relationship of sfigktÆr to sf€ggv (whose etymology Chantraine 1999: 1077
gives as unknown, though Kümmel in Rix 2001: 585 now tentatively catalogues a root “?*sphe„g- ‘zuschnüren,’”
seen aside from sf€ggv “wohl in lett. spaiglis ‘Krebsgabel’ […] und Germanischem” [n. 1]; otherwise Furnée
1972: 280 n. 48). But this definitely does not mean that there cannot be a link at the level of folk linguistics.
Sometimes a sfigktÆr (or sf€gktvr* in AP 6.233.2 [Maecius]) is just an ordinary band of one sort or another
(for the hair in AP 6.206.3 [Antipater of Sidon, who seems to have died around 100 B.C.: see Cameron 1993: 50-
52]; cf. also the Latin borrowing sp(h)inter ‘bracelet,’ which Plautus uses eight times in the Menaechmi [see
Leumann 1949: 205 (= 1959: 172) and Gratwick 1993: 189], as well as sfigg€on* ‘bracelet’ in Luc. Apol. 1), once
it means ‘tunic’ (Hsch. s2904 Schmidt), but otherwise it is what we today refer to as the anal sphincter: the last
meaning (see Steinbichler 1998: 50-52, esp. 51) is, however, found only from the 2nd century A.D., when it is at
home in the medical writers Soranus and Galen (cf., e.g., Gal. 2.888.18 Kühn) and found also at the head of a
pederastic poem by the epigrammatist Strato of Sardis (AP 12.7.1 SfigktØr oÈk ¶stin parå pary°nƒ …), on
whose date see Cameron 1993: 65-69 (compare now Steinbichler 1998: 17-23). (Durling 1993: 307 and others do
not make it clear whether sfigktÆr is sometimes used as a terminus technicus for muscles other than the anal one,
e.g., for the pyloric sphincter. To judge from André 1991: 150 and 205, Latin medical writers use the borrowed
form sphinct$r exclusively of the anus and rectum, but it must be pointed out that if the 2OED presents a fair picture,
then the nearly automatic association current speakers of English make between the word sphincter and the anus is a
recent development in the language.) Note as well the rare noun sf€gkth˚*, a word for someone ‘kinai≈dh˚’
used, according to Photius (Lex. 2.193.9 Naber = 560.22 Porson), by Cratinus (495 Kassel—Austin; cf. also Hsch.
s2903 Schmidt); this in turn is probably connected (see in the first place André 1971: 104f. and most recently
Adams 2003: 420, with n. 15) with the curious Latin term spintria* (pointed out to me by E. J. Champlin), whose
precise meaning is disputed but which certainly is redolent of Tiberian lasciviousness on Capri (André 1971: 105
suggestively brings into the discussion Auson. Epigr. 43 Green/Kay, a riddle about the numbers one through four,
on which see most recently Steinbichler 1998: 122-27 [in the first place on two similar Greek riddles by Strato: AP
11.225 and 12.210] and Kay 2001: 164-66, with further references).
The noun pÊlh ‘gateway’ can refer, or at least allude, to the anus (see, e.g., Henderson 1991: 202); the
sexual sense of ¶xv ‘have’ is mundane (see, e.g., Adams 1982b: 187, who takes specific note of its use in
homosexual encounters; see also Henderson 1991: 156, with reference to the LSJ). Note the recent etymology of
Gk. prvktÒ˚ (and Arm. erastan˘) in Lamberterie 2000: 127-31: it, too, is in origin a passage, though in the first
place for exiting rather than entering (Adams 1981: 244f. and 250f. lists some synchronically clear Classical
examples of the metaphors of doors and paths; see also Adams 1982b: 89).
A 20th-century example is the following ditty, which I have had the unusual pleasure of having had sung
to me by an august trio, first by Stanley Insler (Salisbury Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology, Yale
University), many years later by John Logan (Literature Bibliographer, Princeton University), and most recently by
Robert Anderson (Director Emeritus, The British Museum): “The sexual life of the camel / Is stranger than anyone
thinks. / At the height of the mating season / He tries to bugger the Sphinx. / But the Sphinx’ posterior sphincter / Is
clogged by the sands of the Nile, / Which accounts for the hump on the camel / And the Sphinx’ inscrutable smile.”
In fact, all three gentlemen presented me with slightly different versions, and google searches for “Sphinx’[s]
inscrutable smile” and the like reveal many, many more. I have seen it in print in (suitably enough) the infamously
randy diaries of the queer playwright Joe Orton: “Nigel told me a most amusing limerick. ‘It’s an old army one,’ he
said. ‘Surely you’ve heard it?’ He reported it in his clipped upper-class voice: The sexual urge of a camel / Is
greater than anyone thinks / In moments of erotic excitement / It frequently buggers the Sphinx. / Now the Sphinx’s

only do riddles frequently have at least one obscene answer and not only are trickster figures
often given to (anal) lusts (see above, with fn. 29), but the oldest allusion to the Riddle of the
Sphinx in Greece, Hesiod’s tr€pou˚ brotÒ˚ (see fnn. 13 and 42 above), is in my view
manifestly sexual. While there is some debate in the literature over whether any riddle ever has
just one right answer, most scholars accept that an especially “important attribute of the riddle
[is] its capacity for multiple solutions” (Ben-Amos 1976: 249)49: in the case of the Riddle of the
Sphinx, I do not deny that “man” has become the culturally accepted solution, but it does not
follow from this that other responses, like “pathic man,” could not be equally appropriate or, for
that matter, have just as great a claim to antiquity.50
In conclusion, I have tried to establish that the following words all go back to something
like PIE *(s)phiK-(i-) and are thus etymologically linked: Skt. sphij-/sphig∞-, Gk. f€ki˚ (and
derivatives), Skt. upaspíjam, and Gk. Sf€gj. Although details remain unclear, these
comparisons reveal some of the linguistic and social mysteries that lurk in riddles, one of the
most obscure of literary forms, and thereby contribute to a better understanding of Indic,
Hellenic, and Proto-Indo-European poetic culture. Nearly two centuries ago, Peter von Bohlen,
in a two-volume work dedicated to August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Franz Bopp and devoted
to demonstrating that the Indian civilization was older and more amazing even than the Egyptian,
suggested that the Egyptian and Greek sphinxes had originated in India and even proposed a
Sanskrit etymology of their name (see Bohlen 1830: II.205f., a reference I owe to Suzanne
Marchand): the Indian hybrid figure “heißt entweder Narasinhas, Mannlöwe, oder schlechtweg
sinhas, welches, singhas ausgesprochen, vielleicht dem Worte sf€gj seinen Ursprung gab, da

posterior passage / Is washed by the sands of the Nile / Which explains both the hump on the camel / And the
Sphinx’s inscrutable smile” (Lahr 1986: 190).
Ben-Amos 1976 gives a good general account of how and why riddles have multiple solutions. The
English riddle cited by virtually every scholar who discusses the question of ambiguity is “What is black and white
and re(a)d all over?” (Taylor type 1498a [Taylor 1951: 624]), about which Ben-Amos 1976: 251f. writes that it is
“by now so well known in American society that riddle solvers find little challenge in offering the conventional
solution. Instead, people seek out ways which introduce humor and which would enable them to claim credit for
wit. They do so by transforming the phonetic puzzle into a literal description of an object or a being, then replacing
the ambiguity of the riddle with an oddity in the solution, as the following answers demonstrate. (1a) A chocolate
sundae with ketchup on it. (1b) A sunburned zebra. (1c) A blushing zebra. (1d) A skunk with diaper rash” (footnotes
omitted). The favored answer at my school when I was young was “A nun in a blender.”
For discussion of a multiplicity of possible solutions to the Riddle of the Sphinx (but no mention of sex),
see, e.g., Porzig 1953 (= Schmitt, ed. 1968: 172-76) and Floyd 1992, as well as Taylor 1951: 20f. Rokem 1996, too,
argues that there are many ways to look at and answer the riddle, one of which is overtly sexual: “If we take the
transformation of the number of legs very literally, what we see is sexual intercourse between man and woman.
During the union itself there are four legs, while afterward there is a division into the two legs of the woman, and the
three—the two legs and the sexual organ—of the man. Seen from this perspective, the riddle constitutes a symbolic
reenactment of the primal scene. Sophocles’ drama exposes the real origin of Oedipus from the sexual union of his
two parents. […] In the context of the solution of the riddle as a primal scene with the male sexual organ as a
possible ‘third’ leg, the fact that Oedipus fails to look down at his own feet could also imply his failure to cope with
some aspect of his own sexuality” (265, footnote omitted to Freud’s follower G. Róheim). (I am deliberately shying
away from the psychoanalytic literature on the riddle but do note the following skeptical remark by the distinguished
psychiatrist Theodore Lidz: “Freud stated in two places […] that the riddle of the Sphinx is the basic riddle of
childhood—namely, ‘Where do babies come from?’—but he offers no explanation of his interpretation” [Lidz 1988:
48 n. 4]; Freud’s and Róheim’s own words on Oedipus may be read most easily in Edmunds and Dundes, eds. 1995:
174-78 and 197-202, respectively.) Comments on the fine line between innocent and sexually charged answers to
riddles are found throughout Hasan-Rokem & Shulman, eds. 1996: see, e.g., 12 (in a paper by A. Kaivola-
Bregenhøj), 97 (D. Pagis), and 193-96, 198f., and 205 (V. N. Rao), as well as passim in Rokem’s paper just cited.

dieses weder von sf€ggv, noch aus dem Koptischen abgeleitet werden kann” (II.205). Bohlen
was misguided, of course, but I hope to have shown that there is in fact a real and interesting
“sphinxy” connection between Greece and India. One function of riddles is to clarify something
while at the same time opening up our eyes to new possibilities: I hope that my riddle of the
sp(h)ij- is worthy of this tradition.51


Willis Goth Regier’s wonderful 2004 Book of the Sphinx (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press)
appeared only after this paper had gone to press. Regier’s emphasis is on the modern afterlife of
sphinxy figures, both Greek and Egyptian, but anyone who reads the work will see that he and I
arrive at some complementary conclusions. Among the things I learned from Regier that I wish I
had known earlier are that John Milton plays with the idea of the Sphinx’ anal sphincter and that
the connection between Sphinx and Indian words for ‘lion’ is associated with none other than Sir
William Jones. For a short review, see American Journal of Archaeology 109 (2005) 800-1.
David Bain died of a heart attack on 30 November 2004. He was only 59.


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2004: 12, 41f., and 49, whose excellent second chapter is called “The Power of Thumbs”) in the first place symbolic
of the buttocks (cf. monstrare nates) or instead of heterosexual vaginal intercourse?; is the gesture f%ca the same as
f%ca meaning ‘cunt’ or not?; is either f%ca related to the fruit/tree f%cus ‘fig’?; and how does f%cus ‘anal sore (caused
by sex),’ which probably is a metaphorical extension of the word for the fruit (cf. Gk. sËkon ‘fig (fruit); sore’ and
its derivative sÊkvsi˚ ‘sore’), fit in with the rest? See on all this Buchheit 1960 and Adams 1981: 246f., 1982a:
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